About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Little Fauss and Big Halsy

I was going faster than I ever went in my whole life, then I fell off. Pro motorcycle racer Halsy Knox (Robert Redford) runs into amateur Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard) after a race held near Phoenix, Arizona. They strike up a friendship as Fauss is attracted to Halsy’s carefree lifestyle. But Fauss’s father Seally (Noah Beery Jr.) regards Halsy as a bad influence and refuses to help Halsy when his truck breaks down. Halsy tricks the admiring Fauss into repairing his motorcycle for free at the shop where he works. When Fauss breaks his leg, Halsy, who has been barred from racing for drinking on the track, proposes that they form a partnership in which Halsy would race under Fauss’s name with Fauss serving as the mechanic. Fauss joins Halsy on the motorcycle racing circuit despite his parents’ disapproval. Fauss is constantly confronted with his inferiority to Halsy, both on and off the racetrack. Their partnership is finally broken when wealthy drop-out Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton) arrives at the racetrack and immediately attaches herself to Halsy, despite Fauss’ keen attention. Fauss returns home to find his  beloved father has died.  Halsy later visits him and attempts to ditch Rita, who is now heavily pregnant. Fauss refuses to let Halsy pawn her off on him and informs him that he plans to reenter the racing circuit. They race against each other at the Sears Point International Raceway. Halsy’s motorcycle breaks down. As he watches from the side of the track, he hears the announcement that Fauss has taken the lead… Well if that’s friendship, I’m aghast. Screenwriter Charles Eastman is now probably better known for his sister Carole aka Adrien (Five Easy Pieces) Joyce, than anything he himself wrote, including this, one of the more obsure biker flicks despite its big-name star. And yet Redford could say of it, That was the best screenplay of any film I’ve ever done, in my opinion. It was without a doubt the most interesting, the funniest, the saddest, the most real and original. He seems born to play the shirtless, feckless, ruthless handsome womaniser leaving a trail of destruction in his wake who only loses his shit-eating grin when things don’t go his way. I make it a rule to never make promises. Beery and Lucille Benson as Pollard’s parents are like a new generation’s Min and Bill. They’re so good they deserve a whole story of their own. Charles and Carole were Hollywood kids, if hardly upper echelon – their father worked as a grip at Warners while their mother was Bing Crosby’s secretary. Eastman was actually one of Hollywood’s most reliable script doctors through the Sixties, helping out on productions as diverse as Bunny Lake is Missing and The Planet of the Apes. He was something of an eccentric in that brotherhood of writers who wanted to be directors, inspiring people like Robert Towne with one of his unfilmed works which circulated in the Fifties, Honeybear, I Think I Love You. Towne remarked, For me, it was quite a revelation because it was the first contemporary screenplay I had read that just opened up the possibilities of everything that you could put into a screenplay in terms of language and the observations of contemporary life. It was a stunning piece of work, and I think it influenced a lot of us, even though it wasn’t made. Everybody tried to get it made, but Charlie was very particular about how it was going to be made, and in some ways I think he kept it from being made. Charlie was an original, that’s all. He used language in a way that I hadn’t seen used before. Towne speculated that his sister’s acclaimed screenplay for Five Easy Pieces was actually about Charles. Charlie was just one of those shadowy figures that I think cast a longer shadow over most of us than was generally recognised. Eastman would finally make his one and only foray into directing three years after this production with The All-American Boy, a boxing film starring Jon Voight. This is distinguished not just by the performances of opposites (a sexy opportunistic louse taking advantage of an ordinary decent rube) but by the evocative feelings it inspires – you get a real sense of character, predicament and place, indicating what Towne might have seen in Eastman’s writing – a kind of poetry, perhaps. That’s great screenwriting. It ain’t how you do, it’s where you’ve been. It feels as though it’s minting new archetypes it’s so fresh, vivid and affecting. It hits home even further in the special soundtrack of songs performed by Johnny Cash and written by him, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan – arguably their on-the-nose content is the only thing that dates this, if at all. An unsung Seventies film and Pollard is just fabulous as Little. Sumptuously shot in Panavision by Ralph Woolsey on location in Antelope Valley, Sonoma County and Sears Point Raceway in San Francisco. Produced by Al Ruddy, Gray Frederickson (they would make The Godfather in a couple of years) and actor Brad Dexter – it was one of four films he produced. Wonderfully directed by Sidney J. Furie. What else is there to do?

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Shadows and Fog

I was just pointing out to these lovely ladies the metaphors of perversion. Europe, between the wars. Kleinman (Woody Allen), a cowardly bookkeeper, is woken in the night by a mob of vigilantes and assigned the task of finding a strangler on the loose in the fog-shrouded town where the circus is visiting. Meanwhile, after a lover’s quarrel with her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) after seeing him flirt with trapeze artist Marie (Madonna), sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) escapes into the city, eventually joining up with Kleinman for support as they make their way through the ominous streets and foggy back alleys. Kleinman meets up with a mortician (Donald Pleasance) who’s dissecting the murderer’s victims; while Irmy encounters a prostitute (Lily Tomlin) who offers her a place to stay at the brothel where she works and wealthy student Jack (John Cusack) chooses to sleep with her rather than the professionals present.  She enjoys it and wants to donate the money to charity. When certain circumstantial evidence points towards Kleinman, he must prove his innocence as the police take interest and vigilantes assemble … There isn’t a whore in the world that’s worth $700. The first screening may have had the studio suits immobilised and looking like they’d been paralysed with curare, as Woody Allen recalls in his memoir, and this adaptation of his play Death is an admittedly uneasy mix. It’s part German Expressionist serial killer flick, circus picture, sex comedy, cowardly nebbish tale and social melodrama – but it’s still funny as hell when it hits the right notes, even though some of the cast (David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith) apparently think they’re in a different film altogether. But who doesn’t love Donald Pleasence as the mortician about to get his? And what about Kathy Baker, Lily Tomlin (especially Lily Tomlin) and Jodie Foster as chilled-out smart alecky prostitutes (even if they aren’t given proper names)? There’s a myriad of funny moments and lines with Allen giving most of them to himself but Farrow gets some of them, including, I always think you can tell a lot about an audience by how they respond to a good sword swallower. And howzabaout the great Kenneth Mars as a drunken magician? I once plucked a rabbit from between the bosoms of the Queen of Denmark. Small rabbit. Small bosoms. A hoot, in fits and starts, and so much more fun than its reputation suggests. Miraculous production design by Santo Loquasto, building an entire set at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NYC and shot by Carlo Di Palma. It’s drenched in an atmosphere equally mysterious and amusing with a sort of sinister undertaste, alluding to Lang, Pabst, Murnau but also Hitchcock because we don’t really care about the strangler McGuffin a whit. He’s played by Michael Kirby. See? Told you. Soundtrack by Kurt Weill – well who else could it possibly have been? Written, directed by and starring Woody Allen as the Kafkaesque Little Man. I can’t make a leap of faith necessary to believe in my OWN existence

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth

 

My Brother Jonathan (1948)

My Brother Jonathan

There’s something I should have told you a long time ago. GP Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) welcomes home his son Tony (Pete Murray) from WW2 and when Tony reveals he’s seen too much and is quitting medicine, Jonathan tells him the story of his real background … Early 1900s. Jonathan is the older son of shady businessman Eugene (James Robertson Justice) and brother of Harold (Ronald Howard) and falls in love at a young age with Edie (Beatrice Campbell) daughter of landed gentry but she only ever had eyes for Harold. Jonathan trains as a doctor. When the mysterious Eugene dies his real job is revealed – corset salesman. His wife (Mary Clare) is none the wiser and believes he had social significance. However he’s spent their inheritance and Jonathan undertakes to save the family home and put Harold through his final year at Cambridge, sacrificing his own potential career as a surgeon. He works in the West Midlands in the general practice of Dr John Hammond (Finlay Currie) whose daughter Rachel (Dulcie Gray) is the practice nurse and she falls in love with Jonathan but he still has eyes for Edie.  The practice clientele are working class and he has to deal with the consequences of the regular accidents at the local foundry leading him to write a critical report which is conveniently lost. He is constantly criticised and when he saves a local child from diphteria in the hospital he has to face down the owner’s son-in-law and his medical rival Dr Craig (Stephen Murray) on charges of misconduct. Edie returns from Paris and intends wedding Harold, to Jonathan’s chagrin, but WW1 is declared and Harold is killed in action, leaving Edie pregnant and in a serious dilemma because she knows her parents will disown her … It must be nice to know what you want out of life. Adapted from Francis Brett Young’s novel by Adrian Alington and Leslie Landau, this was hugely popular at the British box office and unites real-life husband and wife Denison and Gray in one of their best films. It has all the ingredients of a melodrama but is supremely well-managed, beautifully shot and gracefully performed. The social message isn’t hammered home, it carefully underlines all the choices that the idealistic protagonist makes and is skillfully drawn as this picture of changing society emerges in intertwining plots of medicine and relationships. Directed by Harold French. They only have one idea in this country and that’s disgusting

The Double (2011)

The Double 2011

He trained us all – his way. Decades after the ending of the Cold War, retired CIA operative Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is persuaded by his former boss Tom Highland (Martin Sheen) to return to the fray to hunt down a mysterious and legendary Soviet assassin known as ‘Cassius’ presumed to be behind the assassination of a Senator yet thought to be long dead:  the victim’s throat was slit, his trademark. Shepherdson is teamed up with rookie FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace) who wrote his Master’s thesis on Shepherdson’s long pursuit of his nemesis. Eventually, their investigations uncover disturbing secrets, which lead them to suspect each other even as Shepherdson’s motives are rendered complicated by some very personal business… Respect is the last thing I have for an animal like him. A dull-looking retro action thriller puts a twist upon a twist, using Gere’s established cool persona to aid a plot that ultimately manages to surprise.  When the initial revelation after thirty minutes about a sleeper agent seems like sloppy storytelling but then registers later as irony, it serves to enhance the enigmatic Shepherdson (it’s in the name, actually) as a kinder more benign individual whose otherwise impenetrable obsession with family is revealed in a rather satisfying conclusion. Grace is not as expressive as one would wish particularly given the subplot involving Shepherdson’s care and concern for Geary’s wife Natalie (Odette Yustman) but we find out why in the final sequence. The risk taken structurally (it’s in the title) is quite audacious – buy into it it or not. With Stephen Moyer as a really nasty prisoner called Brutus and Tamer Hassan as an even nastier cove called Bozlovski and an intriguing Mexican border prologue. Written by Derek Haas and director Michael Brandt. What if that’s what they wanted – a more visible alter ego

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

You never, ever let an attractive woman take a power position in your home. Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is happily married to lab tech Michael (Matt McCoy) with a little daughter Emma (Madeline Zima) and when she attends a new obstetrician Victor Mott (John de Lancie) she feels she has been molested during what should have been a routine check-up. Michael encourages her to report Mott to the state medical board and other women follow suit.  Mott commits suicide by shooting himself before a legal hearing can take place and his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) loses her baby, has an emergency hysterectomy and is broke because her husband’s suicide voids an insurance payout needed for his victims and their fabulous modernist home is put up for sale. She presents herself to the Bartels as nanny ‘Peyton Flanders’ and endears herself to Emma; makes Michael’s married ex, realtor Marlene Craven (Julianne Moore) warn Claire about the danger of having a good looking nanny; and is witnessed by disabled handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson) breastfeeding newborn baby Joey.  Peyton then reports Solomon falsely for sexually assaulting Emma, ensuring his exit from their home. She arranges an accident to happen to Claire in the greenhouse but when she realises Marlene is on to her, she changes her victim … He wasn’t examining me. It was like he was getting off on it. What if I accused him and I was wrong? How amazing to hear these words come out of Sciorra’s mouth 28 years after this was released and two months after her testimony about what happened to her at the hands of studio head Harvey Weinstein, who derailed her career. This nuttily addictive home invasion/yuppies in peril thriller from writer Amanda Silver (granddaughter of screenwriter Sidney Buchman) ticks so many boxes for female viewers it positively tingles – capturing women’s vulnerability on so many levels: tapping into fears about ob-gyn appointments, pregnancy, a husband’s wandering eye, younger prettier women and the systematic way in which one apparently benign interloper can utterly undo a family’s stability with her insidious attractiveness and manipulative charms. The scene when De Mornay nurses Sciorra’s child is … startling. This is my family! A deeply pleasurable exploitation thriller raised to the level of zeitgeist comment by virtue of taut writing, brilliantly stylish directing by Curtis Hanson and a pair of well managed, contrasting performances by the leading ladies who make this property porno utterly compelling. De Mornay’s unravelling is perfectly, incrementally established. And it’s a treat to see this good early performance by Moore, even if she’s the least believable smoker in screen history; while sweet and resourceful little Zima grew up to be the lethally Lolita-esque teenage sexpot in TV’s Californication. This ferociously slick fun is probably the reason most women wouldn’t have a nanny within a yard of their homes if it could possibly be avoided. Don’t f*** with me retard! My version of the story will be better than yours

 

Animals (2019)

Animals

You’re my team. Long-time friends and party-lovers Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) navigate life and love in Dublin, Ireland. However, when wannabe writer Laura becomes engaged to concert pianist Jim (Fra Fee) her lifestyle of drinking, drugging and sleeping around alongside barista Tyler becomes unstuck, threatening their friendship. Tyler attends Laura’s family gatherings revolving around her parents and pregnant older sister (Amy Molloy). When Laura fancies poet Marty (Dermot Murphy), whom Tyler also likes, the difficulties intensify, and Laura thinks of moving out of the nice Georgian flat subsidised by Tyler’s late father, while Laura’s novel gets nowhere, now ten years in the writing…  Sorry girls, didn’t mean to get all holy on you there with my burning bush. With its action transposed from Manchester to Dublin, Emma Jane Unsworth adapts her much-loved novel. It’s energetically directed by Australian Sophie Hyde (her second feature after 2013’s 52 Tuesdays) who does a fine job commandeering two of the most endearing female friends explored on film in a long time, in all their unpleasant, messy, extreme, inglorious situations. The moon has married us both.  Grainger exhibits wonderful poise on her soulful journey through sex and love, while Shawkat is as convincing as ever, an established comic performer relishing the role of a thirtysomething wild child whose balance is undone, spinning into infinity, all to the backdrop of a quasi-bohemian arts scene where happiness is just a stolen bottle of MDMA away. A graphic depiction of problematic modern femininity which is subversive and true. Was any of it real?

Micki + Maude (1984)

Micki and Maude

I’m so hung over my head feels like a tuning fork. TV reporter Rob Salinger (Dudley Moore) desperately wants to be a father but his ambitious lawyer wife Micki (Ann Reinking) wants to be a judge and hasn’t time for a baby just now. When Rob has an affair with beautiful cellist Maude (Amy Irving) she shocks him when she informs him she’s pregnant and he determines to divorce Micki. But at the dinner he’s arranged to break the bad news Micki announces she’s finally pregnant and has to be on bed rest for the duration of the pregnancy.  Rob doesn’t want to ruin things so he marries Maude, pretending that he’s divorced Micki and lives with both women bigamously until their anticipated due dates coincide and they give birth in neighbouring suites at the same hospital … When Daddy retires he’s going to take up decorating full time. Blake Edwards’ marital comedy is heartwarming and funny and depends upon his usual quotient of farce although that is mostly confined to the final trimester of this battle of the sexes outing. John Pleshette is Rob’s TV director, looking and sounding not a little unlike Edwards himself;  Edwards’ ensemble regular Richard Mulligan plays Rob’s best friend, his TV producer; Wallace Shawn is a doctor; and there’s a wonderful Meet the Parents sequence when Rob is introduced to Maude’s father, Barkhas Guillory (H.B. Haggerty) a mean-looking wealthy wrestler who’s surrounded by much bigger colleagues like André the Giant. And he wants to buy the couple a house in the Hollywood Hills that he plans to decorate himself. In a film that could be purely stereotypical, this is turning some tropes upside down. And, in time-honoured fashion befitting a comedy expert, Edwards brings it all to a very satisfying, sincere conclusion, helped by Moore’s sweet performance as the politest bigamist in town. Great fun. Written by Jonathan Reynolds. It won’t get the fat gene